Time for Australia to pay price of its Afghan adventure

Ian Bushnell 22 August 2021 13
Australian troops in Train Kowt

Australian troops on patrol in Tarin Kowt in 2008. Photo: File.

So, the Great Game goes on.

Such was the title given to the imperial rivalry over Afghanistan in the 19th century.

The US is but the latest foreign invader to spend blood and treasure on Afghanistan, a landlocked but strategic mountainous country that has been the target of empires past and recent.

Britain fought two wars in the 19th Century to keep the Russians out, and another in 1919 that resulted in Afghan independence.

The Russians invaded three times in the 20th Century, the last in 1979 during the Cold War before retreating a decade later at the hands of US and Saudi-backed Mujahideen, from which emerged the Taliban.

Yes, the ironies are rich.

Now the Americans and their allies, including the British, again, and Australia are gone, and the Taliban are back, practically without a fight.


READ MORE: Taliban 2.0 claims regarding women are ‘nonsense’ says prominent Canberra activist


The images from Kabul airport and people hanging on to the wheels of planes before plunging to their deaths are heartbreaking, as is the prospect of Islamic fundamentalist rule snuffing out the aspirations of women and girls.

For the Australian troops who served in Afghanistan over the 20 years of the war, and believed in the evolving mission, the result must be galling.

The harsh lessons of history failed to stop that mission creep and the attempt to impose a Western-style pluralist democratic model on a deeply divided, conservative tribal country.

The countryside in particular, where the Taliban was so strong, was never going to go along with such social upheaval, at least not in such a relatively short time.

Short of perpetual occupation, the West could not outlast a committed enemy who evaporated into the mountains and across the border into a Pakistan that was playing the Game too.

Ostensibly a US ally, Pakistan has been double-dealing from the start, offering succour and shelter to the Taliban, and now having influence in Kabul.

The Americans have never shown a propensity to genuinely support a country to stand on its own two feet. Much of the billions of dollars it splashes about tend to be spent on their own kind, the contractors who follow the troops like vultures.

Even the Afghan Army’s kit and weapons were going to be useless eventually without US support if it had decided to fight.

From rooting out Bin Laden to remaking Afghanistan in their image, the American (and our) war was always going to end in tears.

But, as with Vietnam, we now have debts and responsibilities.


READ MORE: Canberra’s Afghan community ‘shocked and distressed’ by Taliban takeover


The failure of intelligence or just plain taking the eye of the ball that did not predict the rapidity of the Taliban advance has left many Afghans who helped Australia stranded, or if they are lucky, waiting desperately at Kabul airport to be rescued.

We need to do all we can to help them, and the thousands of others who will be displaced.

Australia needs to do our bit in the international resettlement programs, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is talking of taking about 3,000 this financial year.

But at the same press conference, without prompting, he raised the spectre of boats heading towards our shores.

“I also confirm that those who are IMAs [Illegal Maritime Arrivals], those who have not come to Australia the right way and are on temporary visas in Australia, they will not be offered permanent residence in Australia,” he said.

“That will not change. I want to be very clear about that. I want to send a very clear message to people smugglers in the region that nothing’s changed. I will not give you a product to sell and take advantage of people’s misery. My Government won’t do it. We never have, and we never will.”

It was a completely unnecessary and politically charged diversion from what should have been a statement of Australian compassion.

Afghanistan itself may again fall into civil war, the Taliban unable to govern, especially with the country’s assets frozen.

Or the other big players in the region – China and Russia – may roll the dice to secure a stake in the country, rich as it is in the rare earths and lithium required for the post-petroleum age.

But that is unlikely to be a military play. An isolated Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will be looking for wealthy but pragmatic friends, uninterested in domestic matters or human rights, and both fit the bill.

The Game is on.


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13 Responses to Time for Australia to pay price of its Afghan adventure
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Paul Murray Paul Murray 5:38 pm 23 Aug 21

Over and over we hear how the Taliban will oppress this or that group – notably, women. The simple fact of the situation now is that if those people do not wish to be oppressed by gangs of 7th-century tribespeople coming down from the mountains, seeking booty and “wives”, they will have to shoot them. Protests will accomplish nothing. Flag-waving will accomplish nothing. The americans are gone. The country is awash with guns. Any Afghani who doesn’t want to get beaten for wearing eyeglasses (or was that the Khmer Rouge?), or raped simply for being a woman will have to take up one of those guns and shoot a Koran-waving goatherder.

Nothing else will work.

Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 12:21 pm 23 Aug 21

There will be many people seeking sanctuary in the West as there were after the fall of South Vietnam. That debacle was followed by something actually pretty clever – a regional agreement under which boat people were ‘pooled’ in one country then ‘divvied up’ among countries like Australia and the US. Surely some sort of orderly process like that is warranted now.

I’m less pessimistic than the writer about the influence of Russia and especially China. Let’s not jump to conclusions. Development will surely bring benefits. What really scares the West is the possibility that Russia and China will do a better job than we did.

    James-T-Kirk James-T-Kirk 9:51 am 24 Aug 21

    That would be wonderful.

    Sadly I feel that what has been demonstrated by both sides of politics is that Australia is not a safe place to come back to. I am saddened every time I see more people being ‘saved’ by the Australians, only to end up languishing on Christmas Island or Naru for the next 9 years.

    Somebody prove me wrong.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:03 am 24 Aug 21

    In the context of being “saved”, do you mean “rescued”?

    This being the case the alternative would have been “drowning”. The people who are involved were never invited to come to Australia so why are you criticizing Australia?

John Moulis John Moulis 11:48 am 23 Aug 21

I find it disturbing that the Murdoch newspapers and other Conservative media are trying to paint the Afghanistan disaster as a noble cause, and the diggers who fought there as heroes.

This whole venture was misguided and a travesty right from the start. No amount of spin or Anzac BS will cover up that fact.

Who did George W Bush think he was by directing his military (and consequently ours and other allies) to invade a foreign country and to try and set up a puppet government and a bourgeois democracy, a system that Afghanistan had never had and had never embraced.

The system the US set up in Afghanistan was only ever contingent on US forces staying in the country and how long were we supposed to do that? 10 years, 20 years, 50 years? And is it our responsibility to prop up a foreign country with a religion and ideals which are totally alien to ours?

This whole venture was a disaster and a tragedy. We hope that lessons have been learnt, but judging by the way the US and other allies invade other countries militarily every five or so years it looks like all of that will count for nothing in a few years time when the political hawks and the armament manufacturers start rattling the Sabre yet again.

Acton Acton 7:42 am 23 Aug 21

If you are in the anti-US imperialistic running dogs of capitalism crowd should you be so smug? The US got rid of the Taliban and gave the country a chance of an alternative future but was defeated by a corrupt tribal warlord led society simply unready or unwilling to embrace democracy in any form.
The result is the return of a backward looking religious theocracy. Who benefits frim that? Certainly not the people. China is also smirking now but should be worried the Taliban will inspire, if not support, dissent amongst its own minorities. US attention and resources will shift away from the distraction of Afghanistan and back to the Pacific, which raises the chance of conflict in the South China Sea or Taiwan. It is a lose-lose outcome for all.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 7:27 am 23 Aug 21

Yep, how cruel, vulgar, and insensitive, was the Menacing Wallpaper, to trot out his thundering cliches of Stopping The Boats.

Morrison was the sixth PM in a row, eagerly “staying the course”. Hard to be confident Australia will resist the next US callout.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:09 am 23 Aug 21

    And the alternative is?

    bikhet bikhet 9:44 am 23 Aug 21

    The alternative is to kowtow before a government that is totalitarian, imperialist and racist. That is, the PRC.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 11:04 am 23 Aug 21

    How does China come into this?

    bikhet bikhet 11:52 am 23 Aug 21

    Perhaps your “älternative” applied to the first sentence. I took it as applying to the second.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 1:32 pm 23 Aug 21

    Perhaps the OP should explain what he meant and offer some alternatives.

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